GUBU Corner: Marxists for Boris!

I want to tell you a story. Let’s start with the RCP. I used to hate the RCP when they were the RCP. I only ever read Living Marxism for its articles on culture, especially the brilliant TV reviews. I like them a bit better since they’ve stopped pretending to be Marxists, and occasionally hove over to Spiked for a dose of contrarianism from Uncle Frank and chums. Very rarely do I agree with anything they say, but then you don’t read Spiked to have your prejudices stroked.

So let’s talk a little about Socialist Action, a group that never had much in common with the RCP ideologically but in some ways was culturally similar. SA never formally dissolved like the RCP, but it’s practically defunct by the standards of left activism, not having done anything in public for at least a decade. Nonetheless, it’s held together by a shared worldview and personal ties. More importantly, the Rossites were always like the Füredites in being frankly elitist, viewing themselves as the brains trust of the left. Rather than try to win large numbers of people to their ideas, they concentrated on winning positions of influence. Although it’s to SA’s credit that they tried to win positions of influence in the labour movement, rather than Channel 4 or university sociology departments.

Which leads me to SA’s symbiotic relationship with Ken Livingstone. This has won a lot of coverage lately, with splenetic denunciations from Nick Cohen and Nick’s new best friend Richard Littlejohn, as well as hysterically far-fetched articles in Private Eye alleging that SA were running London and Ken was simply their puppet on a string.

Hardly. It’s more plausible, especially in view of Ken’s well-known political disagreements with SA, to accept Ken’s account, that he employed SA members because they were smart and had a can-do attitude. More to the point, they were willing to work for him after his 2000 election, at a time when Labour Party members could have been expelled for taking jobs with Ken. They were never really much more than the hired help. All the same, the Mayor of London running a job club for a secretive far-left sect didn’t look very good.

Which reminds me of a rather interesting article in the Spectator a few months ago, whereby James Delingpole, the Joe 90 of Tory journalism, came out as a revolutionary communist. No he didn’t, not really. But he had seen ex-RCP cadre Claire Fox on Question Time, agreed with everything she said, and was startled to learn that Claire was supposed to be some kind of Marxist.

Which leads me to Boris Johnson. Some time ago, this blog opined, apropos of the Lee Jasper affair, that Jasper-type figures are a fact of life in big multiracial cities, and Boris would soon enough have a Jasper to call his own. But this story in the latest Weekly Worker took even me aback. Most of the analytical bit is pure WW boilerplate and can be safely ignored, but the news at the front is hot stuff:

Spiked’s coverage of the new mayor has been generally positive. It views him as some kind of libertarian, and enthusiastically urges him to be more openly so (though Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has criticised his new ban on drinking on public transport). It is similar to Socialist Appeal’s approach to Chávez – you might call it ‘critical fawning’ (the problem for Socialist Appeal is that Chávez is not the future of socialism, and the problem for Spiked is that Johnson is not really a libertarian).

Would it be terribly tactless to mention the Weekly Worker’s own deviations along those lines? Yes it would, so let’s beat on.

The new mayor, in an exciting twist, has repaid the favour, employing regular Spiked contributor Munira Mirza as his cultural advisor. Mirza’s main contribution to the ideological melange of this curious project has been to add to its highly unfavourable attitude to multiculturalism. “Multicultural policies,” she writes on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ blog, “have encouraged ethnic-minority groups to believe they are in need of special recognition … paradoxically, by insisting on engaging with muslims as a separate group, the authorities make many of them feel even more excluded.”

Munira might simply be a ‘fluke’, employed on the basis of her papers for the rightwing think tank, Policy Exchange; but rumours abound that she will not be the last appointee from the Spiked project.

And why not? It’s not as if the Tories are coming down with intellectuals, so why shouldn’t Boris have his own analogue to Socialist Action? So come on, Boris. Why not offer Uncle Frank a job? You know you want to.

33 Comments

  1. MH said,

    May 27, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    I don’t think many ‘Spiked supporters,’ let’s call them, see Boris as anything special. Brendan O’Neill has been particularly critical: “Boris’s journey also reveals something far more important about the shallow, kneejerk nature of the contemporary right-wing critique of New Labour’s ‘nanny statism’. The reason why Boris and a coterie of like-minded Tories could pose as the ‘defenders of freedom’ in recent years is not because they are truly devoted to free thought, speech and to more choice in our daily lives, but because the left turned freedom into a dirty word, leaving it open to being co-opted by elements on the right.”

  2. Tom Griffin said,

    May 28, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    It’s funny how often one comes across these ex-Marxist careerist cliques. The neocons are perhaps the most important example. I have to say I think it says something about Marxism itself, that it’s ideology of historical progress is so easily manipulated by elite groups.

  3. ejh said,

    May 28, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    you don’t read Spiked to have your prejudices stroked.

    Yes you do, but in a differnt way.

    I have to say I think it says something about Marxism itself, that its ideology of historical progress is so easily manipulated by elite groups

    I’m really not sure what this is supposed to mean – could you elaborate?

    Note: most neocons are not ex-Marxists.

  4. johng said,

    May 28, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    They were singing the praises of Munira Mirza writings over at Shiraz Socialist on the basis that they ask ‘difficult questions’ about multi-culturalism. As far as I can see Spike just regurgitates high octane ‘muscular’ liberalism. I don’t see why you need a special theory about historical materialism to explain why when a sect goes rightwards, this is the kind of thing they’re going to come out with. In our society the market decides.

  5. Tom Griffin said,

    May 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    ejh,

    Note: most neocons are not ex-Marxists.

    Maybe not, but at this stage that’s at least in part a generational thing. An important part of the history of neoconservatism goes back through groups like the Social Democrats USA to the Cold War non-communist left and ultimately to ex-communists like Sidney Hook and Jay Lovestone, and ex-Trotskyites like Irving Kristol.

    I’m really not sure what this is supposed to mean – could you elaborate?

    I’m thinking of things like Marx’s treatment of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie and of the British colonization of India.

    One only has to reach the conclusion that the progressive role of capitalism in history is not yet complete to arrive at something like neoconservatism.

    I think that for some of the ex-communists who became neocons the psychological process may well have been like that. The idea of a socialist revolution was gradually dropped, but the underlying historicist framework was never questioned.

    That framework ultimately came from Hegel, of whom Marx said that he found him upside-down and turned him the right way up. Perhaps the Prussian militarism of the neocons shows that Hegel was the right way up all along.

  6. ejh said,

    May 28, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    One only has to reach the conclusion that the progressive role of capitalism in history is not yet complete to arrive at something like neoconservatism.

    Only?

  7. Tom Griffin said,

    May 28, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    It’s not a huge leap when you consider that, according to Marx’s theory of history, capitalism played a progressive role at a fairly recent stage.

    If you think that phase of history is still going on, then within that framework, the role of the the most progressive forces is to spread capitalism rather than socialism. Which leaves you somewhere like this:
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/42j4yq

  8. ejh said,

    May 29, 2008 at 5:35 am

    Yeah, well Tom, I don’t buy any of this, or not very much of it. In general I don’t go for the way of analysing people’s ideas which has Viewpoint A turning into Viewpoint Opposite Of A not on the basis of a seachange in one’s outlook but on the basis of Idea A In The First Place. Specifically I think yhat as the neocons plainly don’t want capitalism to be replaced by socialism at any stage of human history then I think the whole conception is a crock.

  9. Andy Newman said,

    May 29, 2008 at 9:43 am

    ejh, this is not addressing what Tom is saying:

    “. Specifically I think yhat as the neocons plainly don’t want capitalism to be replaced by socialism at any stage of human history then I think the whole conception is a crock.”

    What he is saying that those whose ideology includes some teleological view of historical progress, can maintain that aspect of their Weltanshauung while changing their desired ultimate goal.

  10. ejh said,

    May 29, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Well, I think that may be a question of the outlook choosing the ideology rather than (as was his original claim) the ideology bringing about the outlook.

  11. Andy Newman said,

    May 29, 2008 at 11:28 am

    ejh – yeah maybe.

    I don’t buy it either.

  12. johng said,

    May 29, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    one difficulty with this view is that Marxism was far and away the most influential modern ideology amongst those who wished to destroy colonialism. due to an interesting discussion on Joyce on the Tomb I’ve been re-reading Dubliners and pondering colonial paralyses and at the same time, colonised countries as the home of modernism (a la Jameson). Marxism remained the key theoretical tool in the history of the writings of anti-colonial nationalists, even when they were’nt Marxists. Teleology is associated with purpose in history, and those resisting colonialism tended to be purposeful.

  13. May 29, 2008 at 2:57 pm

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  14. johng said,

    May 29, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Its also worth pointing out that discussions about problems of teleology within Marxism originate amongst Marxists. There is far less self consiousness about this problem within the dominant ideologies of modernisation associated with ruling institutions and ruling ideas.

  15. Andy Newman said,

    May 29, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    #14

    John

    Your point here is certainly incorrect about modern China, where criticisms about teleoogical political assumptions certainly derive from NON-Marxists like Qin Hui and Zhu Xueqin.

  16. chekov said,

    May 29, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    “Teleology is associated with purpose in history, and those resisting colonialism tended to be purposeful.”

    You don’t realise how meaningless that is, do you?

    Try substituting in simple words for “teleology” in the sentence. How about “the idea that history has a purpose” for example.

  17. ejh said,

    May 30, 2008 at 7:05 am

    Well, that would give us the idea that history has a purpose is associated with purpose in history which is, I suppose, true enough, though it reminds me of the great Crass line passive observers do nothing but passively observe.

  18. Tom Griffin said,

    May 30, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    as the neocons plainly don’t want capitalism to be replaced by socialism at any stage of human history then I think the whole conception is a crock.

    It may very well be that people who believe that capitalism is the end of history actually just prefer capitalism. It may also be that people who believe that socialism is the end of history, actually just prefer socialism.

    It is precisely the habit of placing issues into a historicist framework, rather than arguing them on their merits, that is pernicious whether it’s done in the name of the left or the right. And the fact that this mode of argument is fundamental to Marxism is, I think a fundamental flaw in Marxism.

    Marxism remained the key theoretical tool in the history of the writings of anti-colonial nationalists, even when they were’nt Marxists.

    If Marx’s theory had been adequate to dealing with colonialism, then Lenin wouldn’t have to resort to the ad hoc importation of a theory of imperialism designed by a liberal, John A Hobson.

    Some of the best work on imperialism has been done by writers like Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank, whose work could be said to be broadly in a Marxian tradition, but who are not simply trying to update and apply Marx’s system. (Although Wallerstein’s system is open to its own historicist objections.)

    It seems to me that groups like the RCP tend to come from a much more narrowly Marxist-Leninist background. I suspect this has as much and probably more to do with Leninist party organisation as anything.

  19. ejh said,

    May 30, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    It is precisely the habit of placing issues into a historicist framework, rather than arguing them on their merits, that is pernicious

    I’m far from sure that this actually means anything. Do Marxists not argue issues on their merits at all then? I should be surprised to hear that.

  20. Andy Newman said,

    May 30, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    It is also worth quoting tom nairn that having no theory of nationalism is marxism’s biggest failure.

    Contrary to John’s argument, the anti-colonial movements were also heavily influenced by all sorts of non-Marxist theorists of nationalism. Worth reading Hobsbawm’s “Nations and nationalism sice 1789” for a summary

  21. Andy Newman said,

    May 30, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Or Ernest Gellner’s remark that for marxists, nationalism is the “wrong address theory”. The majority of the population are more strongly atached to their nation than their class, and Gellner observces that most Marxists simply ascribe this to false consciousness, that they should . be interested in class, and their interest in national identity is becasue their consciousness has been delivered to the wrong adress.

  22. Tom Griffin said,

    May 30, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    I’m far from sure that this actually means anything. Do Marxists not argue issues on their merits at all then? I should be surprised to hear that.

    Marxists very often argue issues on their merits, and often very well, but in practise, a strictly Marxist analysis in terms of what will promote the process of economic development that leads to socialism, doesn’t actually help them do it very much.

    For example, I actually thought the Socialist Action people did a lot good work under Livingstone. However, if we are to believe Atma Singh, (a big enough if admittedly), they felt need to justify it as part of a a “bourgeois democratic revolution” in London.

    Now I think this was fairly harmless guff, but it wasn’t so harmless when Stalin was justifying the liquidation of the Russian peasantry as ‘reactionaries.’

    Now, if a theory (A) doesn’t actually help anyone figure out how to advance the interests of ordinary working people. (B) Provides a convenient rhetorical language for all kinds of aspiring elites, then surely that theory ought to be questioned.

    P.S. for a good example of this mode of argument see the BICO pamphlet from 1973 in the Irish Left Archive, on the progressive nature of the unionist working class.
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/4gj3fb

  23. ejh said,

    May 31, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    a strictly Marxist analysis in terms of what will promote the process of economic development that leads to socialism

    I think we could quarrel with the term “a strictly Marxist” here. Perhaps phraseologists might say “economist” instead, but I’m not sure that what you’re referring to here is actually “strictly Marxist” as opposed to “an element in Marxism that Marx would not have given remotely the same weight to as have some of his followers and critics”.

  24. Harrods said,

    June 1, 2008 at 7:20 am

    The new Alastair Macintyre collection just published by Brill has 3-4 very impressive essays on the question of whether Marx was a historicist in the sense that Tom Griffin means (#18, above). There’s one lovely line in them which can stand for Macintyre’s whole argument, “whatever else Marx was, he was not a post-Engels Marxist”.

    In one of the essays on morality (Macintyre was arguing against the ’56 equivalents of Hitchens and Cohen) he argues for a non future-centred notion of Marxist morality.

    In another essay, he argues that Marxist is inherently anti-predictive. Even Rosa Luxemburg’s idea – either we will have socialism or barbarism – implies some kind of choice. (Macintyre also insists that if you see working class struggle as posing a series of choice, the same must also apply when you see class struggle the other way around).

    I can’t help but feel that the reason he felt he had to argue against what he saw as a pervasive atmosphere of historicism on the left at the time was that this is how the CP explained Marxism to its audience. It follows that the phenomenon of 1940s and 1950s Marxists swapping one historicism immediately for another (James Burnham as the outstanding example) may have more to do with that moment than ours.

    EG neither Nik Cohen nor Hitchens adopted their latter day politics in one fell swoop. Hitchens had been distancing himself from Marxism for 30 years. And Cohen stepped from at most a friendly attitude towards the left to one of implacable hostility.

    The Macintyre book is a a lovely read by the way and I really would recommend it – save for the wretched Brill £99 asking price.

  25. johng said,

    June 1, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Andy,

    Obviously I have no idea about the debate about teleology in contemporary China, or how representative the authors you quote are of those debates. It is however, simply a falsification of history to write the influence of Marxism out of anti-colonial movements. It was of such tremendous importance that it is now often quite difficult to seperate Marxism from nationalism in those parts of the world. Its why I regard much of what you say about nationalism as quixotic when taken out of the context of a debate about this small and largely unimportant corner of the world. Marxism globally has probably been more obsessed with nationalism then any other theoretical current in modern social theory. Even down to the term ‘national question’. The notion that Marxists ‘underestimated’ nationalism (as opposed to made mistakes about it) is simply incomprehensible in this context, despite being a kind of common sense amongst academics, largely based on ignoring anything written by Marxists aside from the Communist Manifesto. Gellner, a modernisation theorist, is in no position to accuse anyone else of ‘teleology’ (his theory of nationalism is entirely teleological, and its rather odd to find Marxists being accused of teleology by those who subscribe to the dominant teleology of modernity) and his ‘wrong address’ joke only works if you presume that Marxists have historically been unaware of religion or nationalism. On the contrary. They and derivitive theorists tend to be by far the most persuasive theorists writing about it. Certainly more persuasive then ruling class ideologues like Gellner. What I find strange about your take on this is the combination of daring iconaclysm directed at the marxist tradition, and slavish worship of bourgoise scholarship. Most peculiar.

  26. johng said,

    June 1, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    And thinking about it, it is true that Marxism has a rather close historical relationship with the development of capitalism (I’m here thinking of Tom Griffen’s original point). But wouldn’t any theory which engages with reality have such a relationship?

  27. Andy Newman said,

    June 2, 2008 at 11:02 am

    John

    You cannot have it both ways, saying that I am Eurocentric due to your greater knowledge of the Indian sub-continent, but then implying that it is obvious that you don’t know who Qin Hui and Zhu Xueqin are, or whether they are representtaitive or important. It is not as if China is the moon – there are books, and you can even google these people.

    Qin Hui is a rural sociologist who rose to national promience in the early 1990s as a defender of the peasantry arguing that pure market reforms were open to corruption and abuse, Qin had in a very infleuntial intellectual exchange with Cui Zhiyuan in the English language journal “Twenty First century”

    Zhu Zhiyuan is a vocal opponent of the commmericalisation and trivialisatioon of Chinese culture, and advocate of humanity in policy making, but also a strong supporter of the free market, private property and Western concepts of political liberty.

    Both Qin Hui and Zhu Xueqin wrote prefaces to He Qinglian’s massively influential best-sellar “China’s Pitfall” (published in the PRC as “Modernistaion’s Pitfall”) that is a seering indictment of the social inequality and corruption of the reform process.

    The point is that in a country with 1.3 billion people, and where marxism still informs most intellectual and political debate, the criticisms of teleology are not coming from marxists, but non-Marxists.

  28. Andy Newman said,

    June 2, 2008 at 11:03 am

    The smiley was the idea of the WordPress editor, not me.

  29. Andy Newman said,

    June 2, 2008 at 11:16 am

    JOhn

    Hobsbawm makes the point that the interest by marxists in the national question was historically contingent that those marxist currents operating in multi-national Empires were faced with a very acute political rivalry with political nationalism. hence the interest from Stalin, Lenin, Renner and Bauer, as well as Luxemburg and kautsky, and Connolly.

    To this day the most influential marxist on this question was Stalin, and the designation of the 56 national minoritoes recognised in the constitution of the China for example are still based upon the criteria of Stalin’s check list of what is a nation. But surely the decisively non-Marxist Woodrow Wilson had as much if not more infuence in Europe,
    I would say the theoretical development of theories of nationalism rather bypassed marxism between the 1920s and the 1980s, and the and in terms of theoretical contributions to informing understanding of nationalism, the Zionist hans Kohn was more influential than any Marxist, until the recent revival in interest from the 1980s onwatrds.

  30. johng said,

    June 2, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    I wasn’t making a point. I just don’t know anything about the contempory scene in China. I also don’t really understand why Marxists interest in the national question being to do with the fact that it was an important question is in some sense a poor reflection on Marxism. What other reason would there to be interested in it?

  31. ejh said,

    June 2, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Isn’t having it both ways what dialectics is all about?

  32. June 3, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    the German clone of the Furedites, the magazine Novo endorsed no party at the last general elections in 2005 but their official statement before these elections was much friedlier towards the neo-liberal FDP than towards any other party becuase of their position on ecology, GM and nuclear energy

  33. Dr Paul said,

    June 4, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    If one loses all sense of class-based politics, as the Revolutionary Communist Party was doing prior to its relaunch as Spiked (I was there, and like quite a few other RCP supporters I drifted away because of that), then advocating a vote for someone because of one aspect of that bloke’s politics when that bloke agrees with your own hobbyhorses makes sense. Hence, someone whose main area of interest is, say, nuclear energy will back a party or individual backing it; the same goes for any topic.

    There is a logic there, but it leads to complete ideological confusion.


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